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Upper East Siders Demand Action Over Pedestrian Deaths

By Amy Zimmer | February 8, 2011 4:19pm
Flowers were left to memorialize Laurence Renard on a First Avenue sidewalk last month.
Flowers were left to memorialize Laurence Renard on a First Avenue sidewalk last month.
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DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

By Amy Zimmer

DNAinfo News Editor

UPPER EAST SIDE — Walking close to three miles a day with his dogs near his home on 89th Street and York Avenue, Michael McAllister has seen his share of dangerous driving.

"It's absolute mayhem," he told officers at the 19th Precinct at a community meeting Monday night. "I'm afraid to cross the street."

For McAllister and other Upper East Siders, the simple act of entering the crosswalk has become a scary proposition, and they want police to send a stronger message about enforcement.

Two pedestrians have been killed while crossing the street in the past two months — 21-year-old student Jason King was killed by a dump truck illegally backing up on Madison Avenue at East 81st Street in December and 35-year-old fashion stylist Laurence Renard was fatally struck by a dump truck driver with a suspended license on First Avenue at East 90th Street.

Manhattan Attorney General Cy Vance at the 19th Precinct's Community Council meeting, Feb. 7.
Manhattan Attorney General Cy Vance at the 19th Precinct's Community Council meeting, Feb. 7.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

Police Captain Perry Natale said at the meeting that failure to yield to pedestrians shot up this year by 88 percent.

"I walk these streets too and when I'm walking to work in plain clothes, people almost run me over," Natale said. With a large number of pedestrians and drivers, Natale said, "They are all competing for the same piece of asphalt."

Some residents at Monday's meeting demanded to know from the police and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, who was at the meeting, why Elle's Law wasn't invoked in the deaths of King and Renard.

Albany created the new sanctions last year to increase the length of a license suspension whenever a driver is convicted of seriously injuring a victim. It was named for Upper East Side preschooler Elle Vanderberghe, who ended up in a coma after being struck on a crosswalk by a driver backing up to park. The driver received only a summons.

In King's death, the driver was issued a summons. In the killing of Renard, the driver was charged with aggravated unlicensed operation (of a vehicle) and unlicensed driving.

But there seems to be confusion among advocates, legislators and some law enforcement, as to when Elle's can be used.

Its sanctions kick in only if a driver is issued a summons and convicted in traffic court of an infraction of driving with undue care under Haley and Diego's law (named for two children killed in Chinatown by an idling car), a spokesperson for the District Attorney explained, noting it's not something that would be invoked at the scene of an accident.

Elle's's Law did not come under the DA's purview, Vance told residents. Haley and Diego's law also wasn't his office's jurisdiction, but the police department's.

"If you had found criminal misconduct it wouldn't be Elle's Law that we would use," said Vance, whose office recently trained 40 additional assistant DA on prosecuting vehicular cases. "It would be vehicular manslaughter or vehicular misconduct."

The 19th Precinct's Deputy Inspector Matthew Whelan said that they weren't responsible for the charges issued in traffic accidents since they "step back" at the scene, letting the police department's Highway Patrol determine the cause of accidents and the charges.

It wasn't a satisfactory response for Steve Vaccaro, a neighborhood resident who chairs Transportation Alternatives East Side Volunteer Committee to improve the streets for pedestrians and cyclists.

"My concern is that there is not a shared understanding of the recently enacted law," Vaccaro said. "A new law was passed so there could be a remedy for drivers that cause injury or death."

The next step, Vaccaro told DNAinfo, was to set up a meeting with his local precinct and Highway Patrol.

Natale, who works with the precinct's traffic officers, acknowledged that more work could be done.

"It's a new law," he said. "We are creatures of habit. It takes time for culture to change."

Police officials said they issued more than 1,300 moving violations and 2,000 parking tickets on the Upper East Side during the past three weeks. Accidents were down 4 percent and injuries were down 18 percent, Natale said, despite the 88 percent rise in the failure to yield to pedestrians.

The 19th Precinct, which leads Manhattan in ticketing bicycle riders, was also stepping up enforcement of bicycle infractions, issuing 160 in the past week, officials said.

While many residents at the meeting complained about reckless cyclists smacking into pedestrians, McAllister thought their energy was misdirected. "It's well and good to go after to bicycle riding," he said. "To me, the car drivers are killing us. As bad as the bicycles may be, they're not the real threat."